By Andrew Marks and Bob Swanson

            Andrew Marks.   I have been a professional pipe maker since 1969 and, over the past four decades, have created several thousand one-of-a-kind handmade briar pipes. Now, at the age of 67, I remain wedded to my work and to the beauty residing within each venerable briar burl.  

            A couple of years ago, during a late night in Chicago that drifted into early morn, fellow pipe maker and my colleague of the briar Bob Swanson and I were discussing the idea of writing an occasional article on pipes from a pipe maker's point of view, something rarely done in today's publications on the subject.  Bill Unger kindly offered the NASCP newsletter for our format. We hope you enjoy our first ramblings and welcome your comments.

            Bob Swanson.   As a child, I was very aware and interested in my grandfather's pipe.  I smoked my first pipe in 1967.  I have collected, traded, repaired, refurbished, bought and sold new and estate pipes, more than I could track over the years.   I collected Charatans mainly but have owned most any pipe you could name.   The International Charatan Collector's Society was my "brainchild."   I made my first pipe in 1975 and only in recent years have started the Perry White brand of handmade pipes.   I see Andrew Marks as an American pipe-making icon and a "treasure" to all of us as an American pipe maker.   I look forward to doing some articles with my friend and hope that all readers and our pipe-smoking brotherhood enjoy reading them!   It will be a question-and-answer format.

            Andrew Marks.   Bob, I notice that you do a lot of sand blasting.   What do you think about the differences between sand blasting and sand carving.   Tell me about this.   There are several new sand carvers now.   Why do you think that no one acknowledges that they are sand carving pipes and rather insist that they are sand blasting?

            Bob Swanson.   Andrew, I am not sure why no one has claimed this art as their "art."   And it is truly an art.   You, being an artist, know.   Wyeth painted as he saw...and realism was born.   Dali did not paint as he saw, and surrealism was born.   Monet captured his impression of things, and impressionism was born.   And then there was Picasso.  Most say Alfred Dunhill invented sand blasting a pipe.   As far as I am concerned, Jim Cooke is our Picasso of pipes.  Jim Cooke drove sand blasting to even greater depths (literally).   Many have tried to discredit him over the years, saying things like he "rusticated" first, then blasted his pipes.  

            There are actually four general techniques for finishing pipes: smooth straight grain, rusticated, sand blast and sand carved.   Jim is recognized as the best at sand blasting because our pipe-smoking society is not aware of the differences in sand blasting vs. sand carving.   Jim Cooke did show us all in Chicago several years ago how he did it.   He shared his techniques with us even on a video, but we did not put a name to this new art form.   Personally, I would like to see Jim viewed as the artist who invented sand carving a pipe.

            Sand carving is distinctly unique from sand blasting.   To see this, first think "BLAST."   This is a key word.  Just the word tells you what happens when sand is put through a gun with super force of pressurized air.   A sand BLAST finish means that the wood grain will direct and determine the final outcome of the grain pattern on the pipe as the gun literally BLASTS away the softer wood from the harder wood, causing a "relief" or "reveal " of the actual grain pattern and leaving the harder grain as the "footprint" on the bowl.   The grain, then, when BLASTED, determines the final product.

            Alternately, sand carving allows the pipe maker to determine what the finished product will look like without "having to" follow the wood grain as the pattern he wants to create.   A pipe maker carves deeper and deeper into the briar surface, letting the sand carve and remove wood to the pattern he sees or wants to create, not necessarily following the natural grain.  This is the difference that distinguishes sand carving from sand blasting.

            Sand blasting is done with a gun and an orifice the size of the end of an average pen.   Sand carving is done with a "pencil blaster," with an orifice the size of the point of a pen.   The larger gun is used first in most cases with sand carving in order to see the grain pattern revealed; then the pencil blaster is used.   Again, the large gun takes minutes, while the pencil blaster takes hours.   Sand volume, the medium used and gun pressures are dramatically different with each gun used and with each pipe maker.

            For those who still wonder about or disagree with these terms, realize this: sand blasting, depending on the carver, takes between 20 minutes to an hour to complete.   Sand carving, most say who do it, takes 6 to as much as 10 to 12 hours.   Sand blasting a pipe for 6 to 12 hours would totally disintegrate the piece of briar, but sand carving produces a work of art. This tells the story.

            So, Andrew, there are more idiosyncrasies in these techniques, but I think we get the  point.  It would be my wish that pipe makers who do sand carving would realize the practice as an art that is distinct and different from other applications and be proud that they are the artists who create these beautiful pipes.   The Sand Carvers are true artists, some more than others, of course, but nevertheless, artists.   There are several new sand carvers in our pipe-making community, and more are coming.   It is time we recognize a newfound technique for finishing our beloved pipes and recognize the distinct differences and beauty between sand-blast art and sand-carved art in pipes.

            Andrew, during a Chicago pipe show, I overheard a conversation you had with a couple of well-known pipe makers of the younger, current generation.  They told you that they used varnish as a final finish, and you were surprised.   When you asked about the breathing of the briar under a coating of varnish or polyurethane, they said, with conviction, "Pipes don't breathe!"   As I recall, that's where the conversation ended.   So what do you think?

            Andrew Marks .   Bob, I'm not sure if anyone has actually seen briar inhaling and exhaling, but all wood, of which erica arborea is a member (although we would all agree that she is a member of the highest order) responds physically while in or out of the earth to air, moisture, temperature, sunlight and other natural phenomena.  It is well known that, in wood, the "end grain" (or "birds eye grain") takes and releases moisture and nutrients through its pores as a matter of course.   In all wood and in varying degrees, this phenomenon of taking in and releasing continues after separating from the earth that nourished it--this dissipation of air, heat and moisture through its pores.

            Long ago, the esteemed wood-finishing company, Behlen Bros., presented me with a gift of a rare little book.   This little book, published in 1947 by Behlen Bros. and written by Emil Doll, is titled The Art & Craft of Smoking Pipes , from which I now quote: "As the reader may know, briarwood is actually the root of a shrub-like plant.   It takes a century to develop a large size of prime burl, as the root formations are called, from which the most expensive pieces are cut.   It is usually the case that the younger the wood the smaller the burl and the softer its structure.   There are just as many grades in briar as there are in apples, for instance.   Small apples are green, they get juicer as they grow, and they become mellow as they mature.   These briarwoods grow on slopey mountains where they nourish on five months of rain and starve during the remaining dry period within one year's growth.   This alternating treatment by mother nature gives the wood a good wet season, during which it accumulates moisture and foodstuff to grow, and a dry season, during which it is toughened up for its ultimate purpose, the function of absorption and evaporation.   It was Mr. Comoy who discovered these qualities in this particular type of wood."

            So yes, Bob, I believe, as did the old timers, that the noble briar burl does indeed breathe.